The Secrets of Life represents the point where I owe In Search Of… an apology.
In the earlier episodes in the series, the show was very hasty to proclaim some new discovery imminent. Atlantis was just about to be found, aliens were just about to be proved, ESP was on the verge of acceptance by the scientific community, and yet here we are forty years later with all of those things still considered eccentric fringe ideas.
And I said that if ever the show predicted something correctly, I’d admit it. Obviously, I didn’t expect I’d ever have to — but this episode marks the point where I eat crow.
Basically, The Secrets of Life is about the state of genetic research in the late 1970s, and their predictions are all about what genetic science will be capable of in the 1980s onwards. To my non-expert eye, quite a lot of the predictions it makes have proven spot on. Most of them, in fact.
So… yeah. My bad. I sat alone with ropey documentary series that was made when I was four years old, and I didn’t end up being the smartest one in the room. It’s a little humbling.
Anyway, let’s get to the episode. It’s pretty sweet. It opens on a lab technician at work. Everything is blue and glowing. The music track is nothing but the sound of a heartbeat. “In ultraviolet light,” Leonard Nimoy intones, “a technician purifies the very essence of life.”
Nimoy talks up genetic research over footage of dividing cells, and then we’re looking at outer space. There’s a lovely speech about space curving away into infinity. The age and size and grandeur of the universe, and then we’re in a forest talking about the origins of life billions of years ago.
Footage of cells intercut with footage of twin girls playing. Fertilised egg cells turning into baby mice. There’s the usual In Search Of… rhetorical questions about what mysterious forces are behind such things, but I think that’s just out of habit because next we’re looking at another technician while discussing the huge advances in biology since the 1950s.
Footage of dividing chromosomes while Nimoy explains gene theory. In the lab, he explains DNA over a huge model of a DNA molecule. It’s like Spock is my biology teacher. So cool! Back to the twins, Nimoy explains how identical DNA leads to identical children. I’m honesly more interested in the awesome 1970s ice blocks they’re eating, each somewhere between a Splice and a Rocket. Man, I could go a Pine-Lime Splice right now… Sorry, where was I?
Back in the lab, Nimoy explains in simple terms how understanding DNA allows for the possibility of genetic engineering. Over more footage of the twins, Nimoy explains that genetic engineering can’t alter an existing human, but it might be possible to screen for genetic conditions.
There’s even footage of a pregnant woman undergoing genetic testing. It’s all done ’70s style, with white-coated technicians at microscopes. Sure you can do it these days with computers — but you lose out on the craftsmanship of the old ways. I miss artisanal genetic screening.
Microscopic footage of cancerous cells. A mouse with a tumor on its back. They shoot lasers at cells from the tumor and show the old-timey computer scan of the cancerous cells. Is it wrong that this makes me happy? Does this make me a bad person?
A powerful laser beam is used to do surgery on cells. Oh, the 70s, when lasers were still cool. Cutting through cells like it was an early arcade game. It’s gorgeous, and Nimoy assures us that the chromosomes thus expunged will not pass their code onto other cells.
Now we’re watching badly dressed 1970s scientists while Nimoy talks about the possibility of cutting up genes them and organising them into new forms. Gene splicing FTW! Nimoy’s narration is less portentous than usual and more conversational — almost like he doesn’t think he has to work hard to convince you.
Back to the opening shot of the technician and his test tubes under UV. Nimoy talks about transferring DNA between cells and mix the genes of different species. There’s a practical demonstration of how DNA can be extracted from cells. They’re talking about manipulating plasmids and gene shearing.
Talking now to Dr William Rudder, a University of California SF biochemist, who in spite of being a scientist in the 1970s is actually pretty well dressed. He talks about understanding the human genome and the coming biomedical advances. Nimoy explains insulin dependent diabetes, and how insulin was then extracted from animal pancreas. Dr Rudder talks about how recombinant DNA could be used create microorganism that can synthesise insulin. Nimoy explains that the insulin gene was extracted from rats by a much less well dressed scientist. Rudder explains how this gene was inserted into bacteria.
Talking now to Dr Goodman, a UCSF scientist with an awful combover, which looks even worse with the cameraman looking down on him. He talks about how they were sure they had the right gene. Lots of arcane looking footage that isn’t’t really explained, but which have to do with gene analysis? Looks pretty cool, anyway. Dr Rudder says the next step will be to put human insulin genes into the bacteria, so the bacteria will produce human insulin.
Then Rudder gets it wrong, predicting that diabetes might be cured within a generation. Still, with so many correct predictions, I think we can let that pass. There’s footage of some sort of factory control room, and Nimoy predicts that in the future human insulin could be synthesised on an industrial scale, which is pretty much spot on. Lots of footage of biochemical plants. Nimoy talks about whole new technologies based on recombinant DNA technology.
Footage of a 1970s era computer controlled camera taking photos of bacteria multiplying in Petri dishes. Oh, Santa! You knew what I wanted!
Nimoy talking about gene mapping, showing a map of a fruit fly genome, and how some parts of its genetic code is repeated. He talks about theories as to why this is, and what it might tell us about human development. Don’t quite know enough about this stuff. Must read up some more.
Now we’re summing up over a lovely montage of sweet images of scientists and technicians in labs. Nimoy talks about advances in medicine. He also talks up possible downsides to genetic engineering. I assume it’s about to get sensational all of a sudden, but Nimoy points out that there are government mandated safeguards which, if followed, make genetic engineering safe. Nimoy wonders how much control over life this technology will give us, and whether we’ll be responsible enough to deal with it.
Uh… probably? I guess.
Anyway, great episode. I’m pretty sure you could have shown it in a high-school biology class any time up until the mid-eighties. It’s another example of just what a very strange show this is, with its weird mix of genuine documentary and utter crap.
“Thus, science can make new life forms with new combinations of genes.”